By Beth David, Editor
The Fairhaven Board of Public Works denied a request by some residents to add a sign at Cooke Park calling it “Burial Hill,” at its meeting on 1/8.
Superintendent of Public Works Vinnie Furtado said that the board did not, however, change its former vote that prohibits festivals or other organized events at the park.
Cooke Memorial Park is located at the bottom of Pilgrim Avenue at Cherry Street, and just a half a block away from the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship House. The WMFH is a museum dedicated to remembering the relationship of Captain William Whitfield and Manjiro Nakahama, and is run by the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. The society holds a Cherry Blossom festival at the park every year, and occasionally has other events related to the Whitfield-Manjiro story.
Manjiro was 14 years old in 1841 when he was rescued from a desert island by Capt. Whitfield and eventually returned to Fairhaven, becoming the first Japanese person to live and be educated in the United States.
The park has a bench dedicated to Dr. Hinohara who was instrumental in raising funds to save the house. He bought the house and then donated it to the town. A Peace Pole has been installed next to the bench.
Some residents have taken issue with the bench and the peace pole, which are located between the Joshua Slocum and John Cooke monuments. Karen Vilandry and Al Benac have been advocating to have the bench and pole removed, and to have the park designated a burial ground and no longer used as a park. A plaque on the Cooke monument says he was buried in the park, but that has been disputed by historians.
The clash has surfaced at several committee meetings, in letters to editor, and letters to the Selectboard, with the latest stop being the BPW.
Mr. Benac and Ms. Vilandry have privately paid for ground penetrating radar which they say proves there are bodies buried there. Two letters from state archaeologists at the Mass. Historical Commission (MHC), and information from others who are familiar with GPR, say that it cannot show if bodies are buried there, it can only show that the ground has been disturbed. Only an archaeological dig can definitively show graves, according to a letter from last June sent to Ms. Vilandry by the MHC.
A letter from the MHC to Mr. Furtado recommends no change in how the park is used, as does a letter from Town Counsel Thomas Crotty.
Mr. Furtado said that the board was amenable to erecting a sign that used the word “memorial,” but would not agree to calling the park a burial ground. The board also would not agree to stopping its use as a park. The board did not, however, change its vote to prohibit festivals and other organized festivities at the park.
The name of the park is “Cooke Memorial Park.”
The Cherry Blossom Festival is held in late April or Early May depending on the blossoms. In 2012, Dr. Hinohara donated 14 Japanese Cherry trees to the town. Seven are planted at the park.
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